Monday, June 25, 2012

Hakuoki Part 3: The Protagonist as Player Stand-In and Character Arcs

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, is a visual novel game I became engrossed with and decided to dissect (with much love) so I could figure out why I liked it. After all, I’m a writer, and I want to see why the story works.

This week I’m going to discuss Chizuru as the player stand-in and who really gets character arcs in this game. You can see Parts 1 and 2 over here:

Hakuoki Part 1: Introducing the Visual Novel and Hakuoki Itself
Hakuoki Part 2: Handling Romance

Though romance is unavoidable in this game, it is still technically the subplot to the real story, which is about Chizuru’s search for her father and discovering her secret heritage. In the majority of paths through the game, her heritage drives most of the supernatural conflicts around her and all but the bonus sixth path end with a supernatural note.

Which makes me wish that Chizuru was a more active protagonist. Though the player can make decisions as her, she has to be protected by the Shinsengumi a lot. This is not entirely the fault of the story. Given the time period it’s unlikely that the daughter of a doctor would be trained in weapons to the degree she can fight on par with career soldiers. The real world Hajime Saito was considered among the best of the Shinsengumi, making it unlikely to impossible for Chizuru to be able to hold her own against any opponent powerful enough to physically threaten his fictional analog. Staying back and letting him protect her is often the only sensible thing to do.

And most of the time I’m fine with that. Since this is a visual novel this is one of the few games where being a non-combatant is viable, but there have been a few times where if I had been the outclassed combatant in Chizuru’s place, dammit, I would have done something instead of passively watching my loved one get mauled by the bad guy. Even if I had to scream and throw rocks at the villain because I didn’t have a weapon, it would at least give rise to the possibility of distracting him so my chosen guardian could find an opening.

To be fair, there are a few times where she will do just that, or intends to do just that before someone else intervenes, but they do not happen nearly often enough. Despite Chizuru’s supernatural heritage, and the powerful abilities displayed by her distant kin, she never completely embraces it and only takes limited advantage of the fact she has regenerative abilities that would make X-men’s Wolverine envious.

There is only one time on one story path when she directly throws herself into melee and takes a hit intended for her chosen guardian because she knows she can survive what he cannot. I was hoping that would turn out to be the one path where Chizuru learns to kick butt, but unfortunately nothing moves beyond that moment.

On the other paths the idea that Chizuru is useless in combat is hammered in just a bit too heavily, and since she is the narrator, it comes off as rather irritating. We already know she can’t fight well. She doesn’t have to keep bringing it up. She’s supposed to be the stand-in for the player, and the player doesn’t want to identify as being a mopey whiner with low self-esteem. (Or at least I don’t.)

I’m fine with her wanting to repay the Shinsengumi for their hospitality, so I don’t mind that she does some cooking and cleaning, or that there are multiple scenes with her serving tea. Given the time period and limited ways she can repay at all, this is acceptable. It’s just the “I’m useless” comments that bother me, and to be fair, the only time this came to the level of me wanting to slap her has been on the Hijikata route, and I suspect it may be to balance the fact that Hijikata is an incredible overachiever to the level that Chizuru has an inferiority complex when she’s around him.

Strangely enough, if the player is aggressive about getting Chizuru to draw her sword whenever the option is available, she will likely end up with scenes involving Hijikata, which is totally at odds with the way Chizuru keeps calling herself useless if the player actually goes down his path. In fact, if the player makes Chizuru put her foot down when dealing with Hijikata his respect for her goes up. So it’s terrible knowing that being pushy gets through to him, because if she’s not being pushy at the player’s direction and she’s left to her own devices, she’s whining about her inability to help him. If Hijikata’s route is done perfectly to get the most romance points possible this makes Chizuru come off as head-scratchingly passive-aggressive.

But most of the time she just comes off as a well-meaning, but shy teenage girl/young woman (age never established, but I figure she’s probably around 16 at the start and 20-21 by the end) who feels bad that she has a hard time repaying the Shinsengumi for their help, first in finding her father and second in protecting her from the demons who want to capture her. Depending on the path taken, her love interest will voluntarily give up his humanity and become a monster called a fury in order to protect her, which of course adds a certain amount of guilt and feeling that she needs to repay him somehow.

I’m fine when she angsts over that. It’s realistic, and I like that in those cases where the love interest transforms, it’s after the relationship is established and Chizuru already cares for him. (I’m generally not a fan of stories involving normal everyday humans dating vampires, werewolves, and other inhuman things that would, all things considered, be very scary boyfriends you couldn’t take home to your parents.)

But because Chizuru is the stand-in for the player, she doesn’t really change in the story, even though she is the character with the most at stake. When playing Saito’s route I had no idea how much he grew over the course of the story until I restarted the game to do my second playthrough and realized that I barely recognized the character I had happily fallen in love with at the end of my first.

It was largely through conversations with Saito that I came to understand why the Shinsengumi were such romantic figures to portray in fiction. I saw his work crumble around him as the Shinsengumi began to fall apart. As a man who only knew how to make a living with the sword, it was terrifying to imagine a world where swords were no longer needed. He tells that player that the sword is the soul of the warrior, which raises the question: If the sword is the soul of the warrior, what is a warrior without his sword?

Saito has to learn to survive independent of the Shinsengumi, to discover what will give his life meaning. This being a game with a strong romance element, Saito is prevented from seeking death in battle because Chizuru stays with him and he comes to realize how important she is to him and that he will protect her, not because someone told him, but because he loves her, thus making it clear for the first time that he is doing something whole-heartedly for himself and not because he is a good soldier following orders. It’s a satisfying character arc.

Chizuru, though it’s her heritage that drives the story, doesn’t have that. The villain is always defeated by her love interest, after which she will live happily with him for however long that may be. Depending on the story circumstances and individual player predilections, this may or may not be satisfying.

There is one ending where the end villain is someone very close to Chizuru and it would be terrible if she was forced to kill him (and in one of the few instances of her drawing her sword, she really does try!). In that ending I really appreciated the love interest making the kill for her, with him emphasizing both to her and their opponent that he was the one killing him, and their enemy had better not lay his death at her feet.

There is a different ending where the villain is fought because he ends up developing a rivalry with the love interest and he is no longer interested in Chizuru at all. Having her not participate in that instance was less satisfying since the villain’s focus changed to someone else, making the story no longer about her.

She makes a fine window through which the player can learn about history, particularly someone unfamiliar with period of Japanese history at all, but as a protagonist Chizuru doesn't protag much, meaning the player is much more likely to form an attachment to the other characters in the game, most likely the chosen love interest. And it's unfortunate. Because Chizuru has the potentially to be so much more.

She obviously has some guts, being willing to disguise herself as a boy to go search for her missing father. She supposedly knows how to use a sword well enough to defend herself (it's just she outclassed by anyone who matters). And she has a supernatural heritage, which if she tapped into she would probably be faster and stronger than most individuals in the Shinsengumi.

It's the last part that really bothers me, especially when she realizes (depending on story route) that her people have a true form that is much stronger than their human indentities. Chizuru has this form as well (only shown in one of the routes), but she never asks how to control it, how to bring it out, how to use it. In some story paths it's not possible, because the characters who could teach her do not reappear after she learns of the true form, but in others it should just be common sense to learn as much as she can about herself to protect what she cares about. It never crosses her mind.

If Chizuru had just a little more backbone, I probably would have loved her. As it was, she was just another personality to travel with, with the lion's share of my caring going to the members of the Shinsengumi. Going back to Dragon Age again, I would never name the Warden or Hawke as my favorite character, but I did feel invested in them as the player surrogate. It would have been nice if based on the choices the player made in Hakuoki that Chizuru's personality would adapt as well. She's the only unvoiced character, so she could have had a large number of dialogue variations without racheting up the voice acting budget.

That said, I really did enjoy the game, and if you want character arcs, the love interests have them. Chizuru's passivity doesn't make or break the game. Though it is her story, the most fascinating thing for me was the historical aspects. I found myself reading the Wikipedia entries for one battle or another, for the different members of the Shinsengumi, because I just could not get enough of an era that had become so fascinating to me, and there is no shortage of historical intrigue. The backdrop is wonderful and I'd love to read more stories set in this time period, and I'd love to see more of the Shinsengumi.

I know they're popular in fiction. I was first introduced to Hajime Saito through the Rurouni Kenshin anime where he serves as an anti-hero, though he's a much more sadistic character. The currently running Gintama uses parodies of some of the Shinsengumi members as part of its cast.

There are also other games in the Hakuoki franchise. Apparently it's quite popular in Japan, with a third TV season of an anime series based on the game starting, a couple movies planned for 2013, and even a stage play. I'm doubtful that the other games will make it to the US, because the target demographic would appear to be teenage girls and young woman, who are not used to be catered to as a gamer demographic in the US. There are tons of similar games in Japan, but here the US the existence, let alone the formation, of a such market is not a sure thing.

As it was, I needed to hear about it twice to decide to pick it up. Once was a review on RPGFan, which I periodically read, and that was what first brought the game to my attention. Then I forgot about it until I saw the fanmade video I posted back in my post about the popularity of the Bakumatsu in Japanese pop culture. If the video hadn't given me a second kick I probably would have passed this game by and I like video games.

I hope Hakuoki did well enough to justify bringing over other games like it, but considering that the Limited Edition is still for sale on Amazon four months after its release I don't think that's a good sign.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hakuoki Part 2: Handling Romance

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, is a visual novel game I became engrossed with and decided to dissect (with much love) so I could figure out why I liked it. After all, I’m a writer, and I want to see why the story works.

This week I’m going to discuss romance and how it’s handled in game. You can see Part 1 over here:

Hakuoki Part 1: Introducing the Visual Novel and Hakuoki Itself

There are five different second halves to Hakuoki (six on second playthrough), which means multiple endings, and the way the player decides on a path is by bonding with one of the possible romance options. Though the romance determines which path the plot will take from Chapter 4 onward, the relationship is typically very chaste with no bodice ripping to be found. To be fair, there is one sex scene, but only on one path and it happens off camera. Most times there’s a kiss towards the end of the game and that’s it

Yes, the game is rated M for Mature, but it’s because of the occasionally graphic depiction of violence (and all the swearing from some of the rougher characters). This isn't the game to play for some skin. The only shirtless scene is done entirely for humor and the person showing off (and annoying the other characters by doing so) is not a romance option.

What I like about Hakuoki’s way of handling romance as opposed to a game like Dragon Age is that the relationship comes about more naturally. This is helped by the fact the narrative is stricter and even though there are romance meters, there are fewer opportunities to raise them.

In most games I’ve played that allow for romances, the player might do something like attend special events with the potential love interest, say the right things in dialogue, and/or give tons of gifts to the love interest. And by applying sheer persistence (or the use of a well-documented FAQ from GameFAQs) the other character will fall in love with the protagonist, even if it looks nonsensical from a straight storytelling perspective.

Hakuoki wasn’t like that for me. There are still dialogue choices, particularly in the second half of the game after the relationship is formed, but in the first half, when the player is first exposed to the characters, the romance is made up almost entirely of incidental moments where the player has little to no idea how things will play out.

When I first started the game I decided to play it straight and go with what felt right. I admit I was a bit concerned when I was approaching the branching point and all my romance meters were below the black line denoting the midpoint, but it actually wasn’t that I was failing. The game will pick the storyline of the male character with the highest romance and seamlessly segue into the character-specific storyline without any player input or halting the flow of the game. It’s much more natural than the decision point moments in other games where the player immediately knows what they do at a particular scene will decide anything that happens in the future.

And raising the romance meter is surprisingly hard. There aren’t many moments to do so and they aren’t as simple as whether or not to flirt with a particular character. Chizuru as a protagonist is somewhat shy and it’s not in her nature to chase after a man. When she first meets the Shinsengumi and has an opportunity to explain why they shouldn’t kill her, the player can choose a number of different options. How she behaves and the reasons she gives will generate approval with one of the possible love interests.

But the majority of choices do not lead to any changes at all, rather allowing the player to take different paths around the same events and form bonds with characters that have nothing to do with a graphical depiction of a relationship. Many times, there will be a decision as innocuous as whether the player decides to have the protagonist stay in her room versus going out in the courtyard that will determine who she interacts with, and most likely, there will be no meter change. But there is a player perception change, as characters the player likes interacting with will be those the player will make an effort to hang around when the options are more obvious.

For instance, Sanosuke Harada seemed like a nice enough guy, but for some reason I hardly ever saw him except in the scenes that always happen no matter what choices were made. I similarly didn’t have much interaction with Toshizo Hijikata except when he was making command decisions for the Shinsengumi as a whole. Though I thought they were potentially interesting characters, because of choices I made that had nothing to do with who I wanted to talk with, I just didn’t intersect with them.

My first time through the game, my meters went up with three possible partners; Souji Okita, Heisuke Toudou, and Hajime Saito. This was just through in character decision making with very little in the way of pursuing any of them. (I can think of only one pre-Chapter 4 choice I made where it was pretty clear that I would or would not get a meter raise depending on what I did.)

But because of “random” decisions I made as a player, I became invested in Saito.

There was one point early in the game where I went out into the courtyard and met Saito and Okita there. I did not know they would be there ahead of time, which made the encounter feel very natural. I also found I liked the way that Saito never teased the main character, took her concerns seriously, and went out of his way to reassure her when he didn’t have to, even when it was an odd sort of reassurance along the lines of “As long as it’s my orders to do so, I will protect you. No matter what.”

Then when the first mandatory scene with the potential main villain comes out, the player is defended by three members of the Shinsengumi; Saito, Hijikata, and Harada. The player is given the option to draw her sword, call for help, or stay where she is. What the player chooses determines which Shinsengumi member is the one who specifically positions himself between her and the enemy.

By luck, the choice I picked resulted in Saito being the one to defend the protagonist. No romance meter points are earned for that choice, but because I was already interested in him as a character, having him specifically be the one to defend me cemented my choice in who I wanted to spend my time with.

So later choices, regardless of whether they gave points, started to revolve around the possibility of seeing Saito. Demons attacking the compound? Forget Okita. I need to find Saito! By the end of Chapter 3 Saito had the highest score on the meter (by one point, and yes that meter is hard to raise) and it was clear Chizuru had begun to care for him.

This made the transition to the Saito-specific Chapter 4 very easy. Though it was not immediately apparent, there were no longer any opportunities to increase romance meters with anyone else and Saito in turn became very prominent in the story, with Chizuru spending more time with him than any other character.

As the story went on, it was possible to continue raising Saito’s romance meter and see how he in turn begins to accept the protagonist as more than a charge to protect, but also a woman he loves. I really liked how even after the relationship was “locked in” from a game perspective it continued to grow until at the final boss fight Saito declares that he’s not protecting the protagonist because anyone ordered him to, but because he wants to.

I think it’s that post “we’re a couple” point that other games miss. In most games where the relationship is player’s choice, it doesn’t progress after the choice is locked.

I really liked Anders in Dragon Age II, but after he moves in that’s it. The relationship is acknowledged by other characters, but ceases to progress. The player cannot continue to help him with his problems in any way more meaningful than if they were not in a relationship at all. The same story events are just slightly reflavored wherever Anders is concerned, but it is not possible that anything he does will deviate from the central plot because of the relationship.

With its multiple endings, branching from the middle of the game, Hakuoki can do this. The same events play out differently depending on the path. Betrayals will happen, or not, depending on who Chizuru is with. Characters will die in slightly different locations, or maybe not at all. Even the final villain of the story can change.

In a way it doesn’t make sense that an ally will intervene in one storyline versus another, but the major deviations are always on the part of the non-historical characters (who are all oni demons) or characters whose real life counterparts died before the Boshin War started so I’m willing to roll with the changes. The important historical bits, like the outcome of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, never change.

If I did have one wish though, it would be that Chizuru as the protagonist could be molded to be more like the player wants her to be, rather than what she is, because she is serving as the player surrogate in the romance.

And that’s my topic for next week.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hakuoki Part 1: Introducing the Visual Novel and Hakuoki Itself

When I really enjoy a particular work, be it book, movie, or video game, it tends to spark something of an obsession that will last for several days while I devour any and all secondary information I can get a hold of.

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom passed into that territory.

In trying to figure out why I like it so much, I decided I’d break my thoughts down into parts, including reasons why this game flies far enough under the radar it’s difficult to find reviews of it, how it handles game elements uncommon in western gaming, and why it’s worth caring about.

Today’s post is Part 1, and will deal with the the visual novel genre and a bit about the game itself.

In terms of mechanics, Hakuoki is very simple. It’s a relatively low budget game, belonging to the visual novel genre (which is practically non-existent in the US). The story is told almost entirely through text and beautiful anime-style stills of key events, with voice acting (all dialogue save the main character’s is spoken) likely being the highest expense.

Hakuoki is closest to being a electronic choose-your-own-adventure, but with 1000% more text between choices. The player cannot affect the outcome of a battle if they are not presented with a choice, and most of the times they won’t be because the fight is part of the narrative. It is a shocking thing to a western gamer, playing a “game” with so little control over anything that happens.

And generally speaking, western gamers are not predisposed towards reading mountains of text. But I am a reader already, so reading mountains of text is fine by me as long as I enjoy the story. For a visual novel, the story is the selling point, because even the best artwork isn’t going to do a thing for it if the player is not invested in what happens.

Hakuoki is the story of a teenage girl named Chizuru Yukimura during the Bakumatsu (see my previous post) who disguises herself as a boy so she will not be harassed as she searches for her missing father. Shortly after arriving in Kyoto she nearly gets killed by some men inflicted with a supernatural madness, only to be saved by Captains Souji Okita and Hajime Saito of the Shinsengumi (a special police force that existed during that time period).

Realizing that she has seen something she should not, the Shinsengumi take her back to their headquarters and try to decide whether they can trust this “boy” not to talk about this event or if they should kill him. Before long, Chizuru’s real gender comes out as well as why she is in Kyoto. It turns out that the Shinsengumi are also looking for Chizuru’s father, so she moves in with them (still disguised as a boy, to avoid wagging tongues) so they can combine her knowledge with their resources.

The first half of the game (three chapters) covers the four years leading up to the Boshin War, so there are a lot of time skips. In them, Chizuru gets to witness multiple events in real world history that the Shinsengumi participated in, but Hakuoki is not solely historical fiction. It’s a historical fantasy, and secret history as well. Though the events play out more or less according to real world history, there is a supernatural undercurrent to everything going on.

It makes for an entertaining read, and there is an in-game encyclopedia that tracks events, locations, and characters for anyone who doesn’t understand who the Aizu are or what it means to be a nationalist or what a wakazashi is.

After the first three chapters the story branches into one of five distinct paths (six if on a second playthrough) based on Chizuru’s relationship with the different members of the Shinsengumi and these remaining three to six chapters cover her and her chosen companion’s path during the Boshin War itself.

The translation could have used some proofreading as there are a number of minor typos, but the story itself is engaging. The battles in particular are amazing considering the game is working with nothing but still images, voice over, and sound effects. There is one scene in my first playthrough where Hajime Saito is protecting Chizuru from the primary villain and even though I can’t see the blow by blow details of the fight I hear everything. The narration talks about how Saito is drenched in blood and gore, and I’m thinking to myself after hearing each slash that lands on his body “How can he still be standing?!”

Even the part that would be considered the last boss fight in most every other game was still riveting despite having minimal player input. It wasn’t just a question of whether or not Saito would win, but how. (Since there are game over scenarios for making cumulative poor or not-good-enough choices, this was still a possibility in the back of my mind.)

I have a friend who thought it was a waste when I finished my first playthrough of the game in a couple of days. I replied that I often finish novels in a day. Ah, he said, but games cost more. True enough, but because of the multiple game paths and the incredibly handy fast forward option that skips text the player has already read, there’s a lot of replay value. I figure it took me around 40 hours to see and do everything (all six endings and unlocking all the artwork), which is fine for a video game.

The different second halves of the game will likely appeal to different people, as will the companions whose story the player can follow. I think I was fortunate in that I ended up with Saito’s path first because it wades hip deep into historical events, which was a huge draw for me, and it hit all the plot points that were important to me. The other endings I got different amounts of satisfaction from, but Saito’s is by far my favorite and I don’t think it’s just because it was my first.

For history buffs, Hajime Saito or Toshizo Hijikata are the best paths to take, since their real life counterparts made it to the final days of the war. For those who really like the fantasy elements and can’t get enough of Japanese demons, Souji Okita and Heisuke Toudou, who died early or were otherwise incapacitated in real life, go down different story paths only possible because this is a work of fiction and they are given means to survive the circumstances that otherwise removed them from history. Sanosuke Harada’s path is kind of in the middle of the others, but if you’re a hopeless romantic, you’ll probably get a kick out of it.

Aside from Hakuoki being a heavily text based game set in a time period unfamiliar to most westerners, there is one other element of gameplay that likely limits its audience. Romance is well integrated into the game, and it is not possible to play through and avoid it. I think men who are fine with playing a female protagonist who is going to enter a heterosexual relationship with a male character can enjoy the game, but it’s rare in western gaming to have only a female protagonist option with a required romance, especially one that is not aimed at elementary school girls. Yes, this is an M-rated game aimed at older teenage girls and young women.

It’s the romance and how it’s handled that I’ll get to next week.

[Note: The game translation is inconsistent with how it treats elongated vowels. This makes little difference to the English speaker, since “Saitou” versus “Saito” sounds much the same to the untrained ear. However most of the material on the web for Hakuoki is under “Hakuouki” (with the extended “o” sound) if a reader would like to look into more of it. The game itself is unfortunately inconsistent with some names getting shortened (like Saito) and others being left alone (like Toudou). For this series of posts, I’ll be using the Aksys localized names.]